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Human Trafficking

Jeans placed in the Safe Center LI Bethpage headquarters in recognition of National Denim Day which looks to support survivors of sexual violence. Photo by Kyle Barr

This post is in regards to a story published on April 25 about Raymond Radio III, who allegedly ran a sex trafficking ring in his parents’ house located in Sound Beach.

The house on Lower Rocky Point Road that allegedly was used by Raymond Rodio III for sex trafficking is well known in the community for its multitudes of colorful lawn ornaments. For residents of the small North Shore hamlet, with a population barely over 7,500, reactions on social media ranged from disbelief to outrage. 

But sex trafficking has become a growing front for those linked to the illicit drug trade, and according to those who try and work with those who have been victims of sex trafficking, the trade is well-linked to the middle-class suburban areas of Long Island.

The house where Raymond Rodio III allegedly committed acts of sex trafficking. Photo by Kyle Barr

Emily Waters is the director of Human Trafficking Programs at The Safe Center LI, a Bethpage nonprofit that assists the survivors of drug addiction, domestic abuse, child abuse and other issues. She said the issue of sex trafficking has only escalated in recent years, due in part to the opioid crisis that has killed millions across the nation. The center is currently involved with more than 130 human trafficking cases on Long Island, including minors and adults involved in sex and labor, but cases like the one in Sound Beach, she said, are extremely common. 

Waters said these human traffickers, often called pimps, use drug addiction as a means of control of these people, mostly women. She said the average age for these young women is 14 or 15 years old, though she has personally been involved, in the United States, with cases of one as young as 9 years old.

“A victim can look like anyone,” Waters said. “Could be anyone from a high socioeconomic background to somebody who’s living in poverty.”

Worse, sex trafficking has become, in many cases, a more profitable business for criminals. Keith Scott, the director of education at the Safe Center, said a pimp could make upwards of $280,000 a year, and that the practice is often harder to prosecute on the polices’ end.

In 2017, the Suffolk County Police Department, at the time headed by Sini, launched a pilot program to go after human traffickers, according to the DA’s office. In 2018, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart adopted the Human Trafficking Investigations Unit while the DA launched its own team to track human traffickers.

For years, human trafficking has been growing as an issue. Data from the New York National Human Trafficking Hotline show there have been more than 6,400 calls and more than 2,000 cases of sex trafficking for New York since 2007. The vast majority of these are sex trafficking, and the vast majority are with women.

A 2017 report by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health said the top sex trafficking venues are commercial-front brothels (with legitimate businesses up front and illegal sex work in the back), online advertising venues such as craigslist and hotel- or motel-based venues.

Those who have worked to get people treatment understand the issue has grown on Long Island, people like Joe Czulada, a graduate of the Riverhead school district and Riverhead resident until recently who moved with his wife to Brooklyn, where she operates a funeral home. Czulada worked as an interventionist, helping to put people into recovery for about five years. He saw the way the opioid epidemic was tied to the illicit sex trafficking industry. What he saw was mostly young women from small hamlets, those who were often addicted to drugs, and whose pimps used that addiction as leverage against them.

“It’s prevalent, it’s become ever more prevalent, the whole industry,” Czulada said. “It’s everywhere, in every small town here on Long Island.”

The work was emotionally draining, especially in seeing people go in and out of recovery, often ending up back on the street or back with the people who abused.

Cases of sex trafficking with prostitutes over the age of consent require proving a form of cohesion. Many cases, like the alleged one of Rodio, come in the form of what Waters called the “chemical tether,” or the trauma bonding between a trafficker and victim. The pimps often come in two forms, ones who expressly use violence to maintain control, and the others who first get the trust of girls, often abusing their need for affection if they come from affectionless backgrounds, and then hooking them on drugs in the process. Scott said opioids are often used, especially in modern cases of sex trafficking, because it makes those victims more docile. Stimulants, like cocaine, are also used often. Those sex traffickers use the threat of withholding drugs as cohesion. In many cases, the pimps will effectively brand women with tattoos, which can range from the pimp’s name to words like “whore,” effectively reducing their chance of being able to get employment if they wished to escape the life.

A patchwork quilt hung up in the Safe Center LI’s headquarters in Bethpage. Photo by Kyle Barr

The biggest misconception when it comes to sex trafficking is that it only happens to those in poverty. Cases like the one alleged in Sound Beach show just how tangible the reality is for middle-class areas. And in the age of the Internet, pimps also find these victims through social media, luring in these young women through the promise of affection and drugs. Waters said recruitment also often occurs at schools. Often sex work is sold through online websites, such as craigslist, but she said it also occurs at more than 20 other websites, and even on mobile dating apps such as Tinder.

Beyond that, it takes a campaign of education, starting with local schools, to keep the community informed. It takes people knowledgeable about the warning signs, and a need for people to call the police if they suspect someone is engaged in sex trafficking.

“People may not know what they’ve seen, but they’ve seen something,” said Scott, who grew up in Smithtown and currently lives in Kings Park. He knows the North Shore and said despite its prototypical sense of suburbia and pockets of wealth, residents need to understand what issues creep into the smallest of residential neighborhoods. 

“People often don’t want to realize it’s going on in their own backyard,” he said.

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Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) during a press conference about an alleged sex trafficking operation in Sound Beach. Photo from DA's office.

A Sound Beach man was indicted for allegedly conducting a human trafficking ring out of his parents’ house since at least 2014.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) and the Suffolk County Police Department said Raymond Rodio III, 47, allegedly operated a sex trafficking ring of over 20 women by luring them with the promise of crack cocaine and heroin, and then using that addiction as leverage against them. The man also allegedly kept the women in horrible conditions in his parents’ basement for long stretches of time.

“This is a dangerous and depraved individual,” Sini said in a release. “He kept women locked up in the basement of his parents’ house, using the basement as a dungeon. He preyed on women using their vulnerabilities and their drug dependencies to maintain his control over them. With this indictment, we are putting an end to his criminal operation and his victimization of over 20 women.”

In August 2018, the Suffolk County Police Department identified a suspected victim of human trafficking during a routine traffic stop. An investigation by the Police Department’s Human Trafficking Investigations Unit revealed evidence that the victim had allegedly been forced into sex trafficking by Rodio in the spring of 2018.

Further investigation by county police and the DA’s human trafficking sections revealed Rodio was allegedly trafficking women out of the basement of his parents’ residence, located on Lower Rocky Point Road in Sound Beach, since 2014. The investigation identified more than 20 victims of Rodio’s alleged sex trafficking operation. Rodio was arrested March 18.

Rodio would allegedly post advertisements on websites, including Backpage and Craigslist, promoting prostitution by the victims and would keep either a large percentage or all of the profits of their prostitution, according to the district attorney’s office.

“This man preyed on vulnerable women, using threats and drugs to manipulate them for his own financial gain,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said.

The district attorney’s office said the investigation also revealed evidence Rodio would allegedly occasionally keep victims in the basement for extended periods of time and force them to use a bucket as a toilet because the basement does not have a bathroom. The door to the basement has an exterior lock to which Rodio had the only key. In addition to the house, Rodio also allegedly forced the victims to perform prostitution at various motels throughout Suffolk County.

Rodio is alleged to have used threats of violence to force victims to continue engaging in prostitution on his behalf. He also allegedly provided his victims with heroin and crack cocaine before prostituting them to impair their judgment.

“This creates a vicious cycle that is extremely difficult for victims to break,” Sini said. “That is precisely why my office and the Suffolk County Police Department have shifted the paradigm in how we deal with these cases. We treat the women as victims, because they are.”

Rodio has been charged with seven counts of sex trafficking, a B felony, one count of sex trafficking, a B violent felony, one count of promoting prostitution in the second degree, a C felony, one count of promoting prostitution in the thirddDegree, a D felony, and four counts of promoting prostitution in the fourth degree, an A misdemeanor. If convicted of the top count, Rodio faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

In addition to the sex trafficking charges, the Suffolk County Police Department’s Narcotics Section, in conjunction with the Human Trafficking Investigations Unit, began a subsequent investigation into alleged drug dealing by Rodio. The investigation resulted in Rodio being indicted by the District Attorney’s Office on March 22 and charged with five counts of Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree, a B felony.

Rodio was arraigned on the indictment in connection with the alleged human trafficking operation today by Suffolk County Acting Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho. Bail was set at $1 million cash or $2 million bond. He is due back in court May 21.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Daniel Cronin, of the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau’s Human Trafficking Team.

Charlie Ziegler, director of operations of the Holiday Inn Express-Stony Brook, Denean Marie Lane, manager of the Holiday Inn Express, and presenters Laura Dooling, Shantae Rodriguez, and Anthony Zenkus from the Blue Campaign. Photo from the Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook

A Stony Brook hotel is doing its part to help stop sex trafficking on Long Island.

“They’re the ones walking the halls all day long so if they see something out of place, they can let us know.”

— Charlie Ziegler

The Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook says it is the first hotel on Long Island to offer an employee seminar on how to spot victims of human trafficking. John Tsunis, the hotel’s owner, invited representatives from Long Island Against Trafficking, a nonprofit dedicated to creating awareness about trafficking, and Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, which assists survivors of violence, to conduct the hour-long seminar earlier this month for all of their housekeeping and management staff.

Charlie Ziegler, director of operations at Holiday Inn Express, said while the hotel has never encountered a problem, Tsunis and its management felt the information would be invaluable to employees.

“They’re the ones walking the halls all day long so if they see something out of place, they can let us know,” Ziegler said, adding calling the authorities would be the next step.

Sue Lingenfelter, a board member of Long Island Against Trafficking, presented the idea to Tsunis at a networking event back in September, and he quickly said “yes” to the nonprofit coming in to make a presentation.

The goal of the seminar is to train staff members on how to identify victims of human sex trafficking, according to Lingenfelter, where a person is forced against their will to engage in sexual activity, and what to do if they suspect it — a crime she said that occurs often in hotels.

Both Lingenfelter and her fellow board member Shantae Rodriguez said there are a number of red flags to look out for that include: a person allowing someone else to do the talking for them; a hotel guest refusing housekeeping services but ordering more towels and linens than average; a distressed young woman with an older man; or a group of women with one man.

“You can be in the hallway, notice there was a man inside and he came out and saw another man go in, come out.”

— Sue Lingenfelter

LIAT members said sometimes a hotel guest may not want to give a full name, register a vehicle, or will ask for a room toward the back of the hotel which makes it easier for multiple people to come and go. Lingenfelter added seeing a lot of people coming and going from one hotel room is a red flag.

“You can be in the hallway, notice there was a man inside and he came out and saw another man go in, come out,” she said. “These are the signs [employees] can potentially notice. Every employee in the hotel would have a different view of things that could show that this person is being trafficked.”

Rodriguez said if someone gets a chance to talk to a suspected victim, they may find out the person doesn’t know what day it is or what town they are in due to being moved from one location to another constantly by the trafficker.

Both board members and Ziegler felt the seminar was well received and Rodriquez said many employees asked questions.

“The fact that they’re asking questions shows that they’re engaging, and it did turn some wheels, or maybe there is something they’re looking out for,” she said.

Lingenfelter and Rodriguez said they are hoping to bring the seminar to more hotels on Long Island.

“The more education, the more seminars, the more training a hotel is willing to receive, the more that they’re able to say they’re taking a stand against this injustice and being a part of the healing of ending trafficking in this particular area,” Rodriguez said.

Ziegler said if new employees are added to the Holiday Inn Express staff or it is felt a refresher is needed, they would definitely schedule another seminar, and he said he recommends it for all hotels.

“Even if you feel you don’t have this issue going on at all, for every hotel I would absolutely do a seminar,” he said. “It only takes an hour out of everyone’s time. If it can save one victim anywhere it’s worth it.”

Pilot programs aimed at identifying and aiding trafficking victims and potential targets

Dr. Santhosh Paulus, of Huntington Hospital, and Shandra Woworuntu, a human trafficking survivor, together at Huntington Hospital. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Huntington Hospital is taking the first step toward helping its health care workers better identify and aid human trafficking victims in the community.

Dr. Santhosh Paulus, a hospitalist at Huntington Hospital, will launch a pilot program for Northwell Health aiming to train hospital staff how to recognize and then provide support to human trafficking victims.

“Six months ago, when I was asked to join a human trafficking task force I said, ‘Gee, that’s interesting. I’m here 19 years and I’ve never come across a patient involved in human trafficking,’” said Judy Richter, a social worker at Huntington Hospital. “We have been missing quite a few patients as we had not been trained in how to recognize the signs or what we can do to help them.”

We need to promote humane work in hospitals. This is the front line to identify victims.”
— Shandra Woworuntu

In December 2017, the former owner of the Thatched Cottage in Centerport was indicted on federal charges for allegedly illegally trafficking workers from the Philippines.

Paulus and his approximately 30-member task force is undergoing training from Restore NYC, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end trafficking in New York. The task force will then train the hospital’s emergency room department and ambulatory center in recognizing signs of both current victims and potential victims.

“Labor trafficking in agriculture or the restaurant industry looks so different from sex trafficking,” Paulus said, noting human trafficking occurs in more than 25 different trades. “There are so many avenues of how you can be trafficked, there’s no simple answer.”

Some signs physicians will look for are patients seeking treatment accompanied by another individual who is holding onto a patient’s documents and identification for them, answering all questions for them, avoiding eye contact and certain tattoos.

“Human trafficking victims are hard to identify because it’s hidden, you cannot see it with plain sight,” said Shandra Woworuntu, a member of the U.S. Council on Human Trafficking. “Sometime, they walk around. When [my captors] escorted me around, nobody saw me.”

Human trafficking victims are hard to identify because it’s hidden, you cannot see it with plain sight”
— Shandra Woworuntu

As a sex trafficking survivor, Woworuntu spoke to hospital staff Jan. 12 to share her personal perspective. The former bank manager and money market trader came to the United States at age 34, when religious persecution made her feel unsafe in her home country of Indonesia. She arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport through an employment agency that promised her a $5,000-a-month job working in a Chicago hotel. Instead, her passport was seized and she was abducted into a sex trafficking ring operating out of Queens.

“[My captor] demanded from me $30,0000 to be free,” Woworuntu said. “I was compliant due to the abuse, the violence, guns and knife.”

She would make her escape by climbing through a second-story bathroom window. However, Woworuntu said she faced skepticism when initially seeking help from New York City police, churches and even the Indonesian consulate. When brought to a hospital, she recalled screaming as physicians examined her because she didn’t speak any English and wasn’t fully informed what procedures were being done.

“Even if I came from a place that was dirty, I am still human,” Woworuntu said. “We need to promote humane work in hospitals. This is the front line to identify victims.”

As a survivor, Woworuntu hoped sharing her story with Paulus and other Huntington Hospital would help staff members to treat victims with dignity. She now runs Mentari, a 501(c)(3) organization in New York that provides support, basic necessities and vocational training for trafficking victims.